Haydn Piano Sonatas

Author: 
Richard Wigmore

Haydn Piano Sonatas

  • Sonata for Keyboard No. 47
  • Sonata for Keyboard No. 50
  • Sonata for Keyboard No. 41
  • Sonata for Keyboard No. 49
  • Sonata for Keyboard No. 59

It’s good to see such a gifted, high-profile young pianist as Leif Ove Andsnes tackling Haydn, whose sonatas still tend to be given short shrift by all but a few dedicated champions. This new disc offers delectable performances of five shrewdly contrasted works: two troubled, trenchant minor-key sonatas from the 1770s juxtaposed with a pair of lightweight pieces from the same period and culminating in the great E flat Sonata dedicated to Haydn’s friend and confidante Marianne von Genzinger.
Like Alfred Brendel in his Gramophone Award-winning four-disc survey for Philips, Andsnes is eagerly responsive to the individual character of these sonatas, to their richness and variety of incident, and their sheer unpredictablility. With his wide spectrum of colour and dynamics he makes no apologies for using a modern Steinway. But his playing, founded on a pellucid cantabile touch and diamantine passagework, marries classical refinement and clarity with a spontaneous exuberance, a sense that the next phrase is yet to be created. Repeats are never merely repetitions, and Andsnes is always ready to add stylish and witty touches of embellishment. The opening movements of both minor-key sonatas have a lithe, sinewy urgency, above all in the vehement sequences of their developments, together with a rare delicacy of nuance: and here, as elsewhere, you notice how alive and concentrated is his piano and pianissimo playing. Andsnes disguises the sectional nature of the C sharp minor’s central Scherzando by presenting the movement as a continuous crescendo of comic brio, while his pliant, regretful way with the closing minuet makes it seem more than ever a counterpart to the elegiac minuet finale of Mozart’s E minor Violin Sonata, K304.
In both the B minor and E flat Sonatas Brendel tends to be broader and weightier than Andsnes, more likely to conjure Beethovenian associations in, say, the dramatic development of the E flat’s opening Allegro. But Andsnes’s bright, buoyant yet lyrical reading of this sonata’s outer movements has its own validity; and he brings to the wonderful Adagio a limpid line, a subtly flexed pulse and, in the B flat minor central episode, a true sense of passion – Brendel, equally masterly, is more lofty and contained here. In the first movement of the D major Andsnes struck me as too fleet and mechanical, for all the dazzling clarity of his runs; on the other hand the central Largo – a grandly Handelian sarabande with some very un-Handelian harmonies – is uncommonly slow and brooding, with rich, deep sonorities and huge dynamic contrasts – here, as often elsewhere, Andsnes effectively ‘orchestrates’ the keyboard.
Once or twice – as in the driving finale of the B minor – I thought Andsnes’s fondness for throwaway pianissimo endings backfired. And I’m sorry he habitually stints on second-half repeats in sonata movements (and in a few shorter repeats elsewhere). But with few provisos this is just the sort of playing – joyous, imaginative, involving – to win Haydn’s sonatas a wider following. The recording of the E flat, made in a church in Oslo, has slightly more ambient warmth than that of the remaining sonatas, recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road studios. But throughout, the piano sound is natural and present without being too closely miked.'

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